Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others. Collected and edited by R. W. Chapman. New York: The Oxford University Press. 2 vols. $12.50.
Jane austen’s letters have not been readily accessible in the recent past. Lord Brabourne’s edition, which was faulty and incomplete, has long been out of print, and even the Austen Leighs’ admirable “Memoir,” which quoted them copiously, is now obtainable only from the second-hand dealers who, unfortunately, are too well aware of its interest. Now at last, however, we have them complete (or as nearly so as diligence can make them) in a form beautifully worthy of their author. Mr. Chapman, who is the most loving of Janeites, has brought the whole of his very extensive scholarship and ingenuity to bear upon their many minute problems. In his skillful hands the little obscurities vanish. Each domestic happening, cryptically poured forth into the ear of a knowing intimate, is made clear in brief notes, tactfully inserted at the back of each volume. The frequently puzzling family relationships are explained in a first and indispensable index, and there are no less than seven other indexes, all useful. Moreover, the books are embellished with several maps and many pictures appropriate to the matter of the text.
So complete and scholarly, so painstakingly careful and exact, so seemingly formidable, in fact, is Mr. Chapman’s work that it has brought from other scholars and critics a chorus of queries as to whether the letters themselves were worth the effort. English reviewers (not, this time, the deplorable Scotch), unable to deny the accuracy of the editor’s erudition, have attacked the importance of his task, and have lamented lengthily that so much industry should be spent on the elucidation of material that occupies itself with nothing more vital than the purchasing of a new ribbon and the making over of old dresses. And they go on to speculate as to how it was possible for a person of Jane Austen’s known perspicacity and obvious genius to write such stupid and trivial letters. This is an old game. It dates back to the publication of Lord Brabourne’s edition in 1884, and will, presumably, be always played. But to the genuine lover of Jane it is a paltry and quite superfluous game. The letters are trivial. Who would care to deny it? But they are far from stupid. They provide us with our only first-hand glimpse, unhappily much too slight, of the real life out of which grew those altogether remarkable novels that began with “Sense and Sensibility” and ended with “Persuasion.” They contain the raw materials that went to the creation of Miss Bates, Henry Crawford, Anne Elliot, and all the rest.
Jane Austen’s acquaintance with life was by no means exhaustive. Her bounds were narrow, limited to the small rural circles to which her position held her, but she had the power to make the artistic most out of this placid existence. The novels are the finished literary expression of the life she led, replete with all the wisdom that reflection had brought her. The letters show us that sensitive wisdom in the making. They have not the art of the novels, but they have the same tart, playful humor, the same rational acceptance of the world as it is. Their only fault is that they are too intimate. Most of them were written to an elder sister from whom Jane was seldom separated for more than a week or two at a time, and they are therefore full of elliptical comments and family brevities, intended only for the initiated. These, the assiduity of Mr. Chapman’s editing has interpreted, so that now we may see her, natural and at ease, among her own household gods. And from the cumulation of detail upon detail we become aware that the Jane of the novels and the Jane of Steventon and Chawton, those parishes that were honored by her presence, were the same delightful, wisely malicious, agreeably sane, witty lady. Let the importantly learned scoff, if they will, at these absorbing trivialities—the Janeite is grateful, both for the new aid to his understanding and for the splendid tribute which Mr. Chapman’s idolatry pays to the immortal.